Power + Incompetence = a Bullying Boss

By Eliza Strickland | October 15, 2009 4:02 pm

bullying-bossHere’s some gratifying news for any employees out there who are feeling bullied by a tyrannical boss: That aggressive behavior may have little to do with you, and a lot to do with your boss’s feelings of incompetence. A new study in Psychological Science found that when managers are made to feel insecure about their job performance, their aggressiveness skyrockets. “Power holders feel they need to be superior and competent. When they don’t feel they can show that legitimately, they’ll show it by taking people down a notch or two” [New Scientist], says study coauthor Nathanael Fast.

The researchers got 410 volunteers from various workplaces to fill out questionnaires about their position in the workplace hierarchy, how they felt about their job performance, and their aggressive tendencies. They also conducted a series experiments on the volunteers. In one, they manipulated the subjects’ sense of power and self-worth by asking them to write about occasions when they felt either empowered or impotent and then either competent or incompetent. Previous research has suggested that such essays cause a short-term bump or drop in feelings of power and capability [New Scientist]. Next they asked the volunteers to set the level of punishment for (imaginary) university students who got wrong answers on a test. Those people who felt more powerful and more incompetent picked the harshest punishments, the study found.

So what’s to be done with a bullying boss? Coauthor Serena Chen says a little ego stroking may make life easier for everyone. “Make them feel good about themselves in some way,” Chen said, suggesting this might mean complimenting a hobby or nonwork activity provided it is “something plausible that doesn’t sound like you’re sucking up” [San Francisco Chronicle].

Related Content:
80beats: Teenage Bullies are Rewarded With Pleasure, Brain Scans Show
DISCOVER: So, You Want to Be the Boss?

Image: iStockphoto

MORE ABOUT: emotions, mental health
  • Christina Viering

    It figures.

  • Ronique Breaux Jordan

    Excellent Article!

  • Em

    Now they just need to do studies on how to keep incompetent people out of positions with power!

    It would be nice to do away with examples of the Peter Principle, but I doubt that will happen.

  • John Grigni

    I originally read that as “Power + Incontinence = a Bullying Boss”. I was confused for a paragraph or two.

  • Billy Bob

    Em, unfortunately incompetence is never in short supply.

  • Em

    Billy Bob, oh I know. I’m just of the opinion that once someone reaches their level of incompetence (per the Peter Principle) that they should then be demoted back down to their previous position that they were competent in. But it would be hard to decide on how much time should be given to a person to become used to the new position to see if they become competent.

  • gold brick

    Driver type incompetents usually have little patience. When my maroon of an employer asks me a question, I barrage him with (way) too much information. I try to keep his eye contact as well so he can’t fake that he is listrning to me. He squirms like the eel that he is. Now when he sees me coming, he moves on to an easier target.

  • Chad Cartwright

    Employees have been coddled and cuddled too long in America. This decade has been seen thru the filter of television, popularising the poor office worker. Meanwhile office worker productivity has dwindled with the advent of the web and text messages.

    I bet half of you whiny jokers are posting on the clock! Just be glad you aren’t chained to your work space like your ancestors were. I slaved my way thru college while my employees were smoking pot and having babies before they could provide for them.

  • http://www.confidenceconnections.com Kathleen

    Sucking up doesn’t really work in the long run based on my work with both victims and perps. It’s obvious and disempowers the target. Share real compliments, if possible. Focus on work requirements and look the bully in the eye, that helps them to back down. Study avoids focus on one real purpose of bullying-consolidation of power including and especially control and ownership of careers. They may feel powerless but sometimes they’re consolidating power by destroying others.

  • http://www.shembooth.com Shem

    It sucks that we Live to work in the modern ages, The comment above by the “boss guy” regarding us moaning cos were not in chains @ our desk, well pal, thankfully we progressed a little beyond your slave driving ways. When they all agree its a 3 dayweek then we can spend more of our time with our loved ones more time being happy in life and not working for power greedy ego maniacs, studies on how to keep incompetent people out of positions with power is research thats needed….

    after all the same guys are pressing the red buttons of war and making dumb ass choices for us “workers” and directing the course of our history.

    Maybe in 500 yrs we work a 3 day week, now wouldnt that be cool!

  • http://yomamma alexander bogan

    Harms of Bullying
    Bullying is a serious problem that harms not only the victim, but everyone that it touches. It can have a serious negative effect on the bully, witnesses, and the environment as a whole.
    The most obvious harm occurs to the victim. It could be anything from physical injury to embarrassment, to harm to their self esteem and even potential for success in the future. Extreme bullying (particularly coupled with sexual harassment) may cause depression or even lead to suicide. Victims often display lowered self-esteem and lowered grades, anxiety, and decreased attentiveness. Being bullied may cause a child to shy away from other children as well, or even adults–or it may cause them to become clingy, fearing separation from adults. It really depends on the individual child, the situation, and the intensity of the bullying, but it is clear that the harm is very real.
    However, while attention is usually focused on this harm to the victim, also be aware of the negative effects on the bully. Studies have shown* that bullies are more likely to drop out of school, and that forty percent are convicted of at least three crimes by the age of twenty-four. Elementary school bullies are five times more likely than non-bullies to have a criminal record by the age of thirty. They are more likely to be involved in domestic violence and to work jobs below their skill level. Moreover, a bully’s children are more likely to be bullies themselves, resulting in a vicious cycle of abuse.
    Even if other students are not directly involved in the bullying, it can also have a negative impact on witnesses and the educational environment as a whole. Other children may be anxious or afraid that it could happen to them as well. They may be confused about whether to tell someone, or alienated by friends who are bullied. Bullying leads to an imbalanced environment, and can cultivate a culture of fear at a very young age.
    Because Cyberbullying is a relatively new phenomenon, we do not know enough about how some of the harms above may or may not apply–but we do know that it is leading to more and more bullies, which means more and more victims. The next articles in this series will examine more closely how cyberbullying differs from traditional bullying.

    Read more: http://www.brighthub.com/education/k-12/articles/10833.aspx#ixzz0dwKvkjZPhfmyhrkjdghfkdh


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar